The Decisive Moment

Hills of Orange | Velvia 50 4x5 | Nikkor 75mm | South Coyote Buttes

Perhaps the most important skill in photography is capturing the decisive moment.  This is especially apparent with sports and photojournalism. In sports photography, the decisive moment is readily apparent. It certainly helps when the subject is presented on a playing field, and the action starts and stops with the clock. With photojournalism, these moments pass in the blink of an eye without much fanfare. It could be a quick glance between two people, or the momentary expression on a person’s face. I have tremendous respect for photojournalists, because they must have a keen awareness of the situation around them.

With landscape photography, there are also decisive moments. There are make or break situations, and it is amazing how fast the light can change. These events quietly pass in nature, akin to photojournalism. There is no fanfare, and the show will go on even without an audience.

I find that the best way to try and capture the decisive moment is planning. If the shot is planned out well in advance, it simply becomes a waiting game that involves a touch of luck.

The above photo was taken last February in South Coyote Buttes.  I visited this location twice in 2009, and plan on a return trip early this year. The rock formations, and colors are stunningly beautiful. However, it is one of those places where compositions are difficult to isolate.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering around, and decided that there was photographic potential in this small corner of CBS.  I was attracted to this area because of the bold color, and linear elements. I composed the shot with a diagonal leading line, and two small bushes in the foreground.

It was early in the day when I set up my tripod.  I was planning for a shot in the afternoon or the evening depending on the lighting.  After locking down the camera and placing a rain cover over it, I headed back to camp for lunch.  It is not a long hike back to camp, but the deep sand makes it seem that way.

I returned several hours later, and saw that the conditions were improving.  Some clouds moved overhead, but the western sky (out of view) was still wide open. I knew that the sunlight would only last for a few more minutes. The sun was glancing off the foreground rocks, and this would not last much longer either. I metered the scene, adjusted the lens, and took the shot. After I was done, the sunlight was gone. I had a narrow window of opportunity to take the photo the way I wanted.

This was still a rather large window of opportunity compared to other landscape shots.  Let’s say that you want to photograph a sunrise where the first few beams appear over the horizon.  In that situation, the decisive moment will last a second or two.  These photos are more difficult.

Since my switch back to film, I have found that it is even more important to learn to predict the decisive moment. I might have just one or two pieces of film with me, so I need to choose the best possible moment to trip the shutter. I am getting much better at determining the decisive moment.   There are times when I miss the shot I had in mind, but it’s not the end of the world.  The sun will rise and set the following day.

4 Responses to “The Decisive Moment”

  1. Sharon Van Lieu Says:

    Stunning shot, Ben. I enjoyed hearing how you set this one up.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      I’m not always that patient, but sometimes things work out. I have a hard time sitting still in the same place, so heading back to camp for lunch usually works for me. That way I pretty much “have” to take the photo because I have to hike all the way back to retrieve my camera anyway. 🙂

  2. Jose Suro Says:

    Gorgeous shot Ben! Nowadays I always save a sheet. In the past, more times than not, a completely different and beautifully lighted scene developed after “I had the image” and was packing up. I’ve learned to wait well beyond sunset…. Sunrise is different. but still it’s good to have an extra sheet with those as well. It’s just minutes so I’ve learned to be a little more patient, and carry that extra weight just in case.

    Keep up the great work.



    • Ben Horne Says:

      I know what you mean about saving a sheet of film, and waiting until everything is completely over. In the past, I have been guilty of packing up a bit too early, only to have an amazing show of color. Live and learn! I prefer to shoot at sunrise as much as possible because as you stated, this is not an issue. Plus, the additive light is nice because the actual exposure times end up being faster than originally metered.

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